Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Winner Is . . .

May Sarton's The Small Room just squeaked by. Our next discussion will begin Sunday October 31st. Hope to see you all then!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Time to Vote: Back to the Classics

Once again it is time to choose a new book to read. With summer winding down and thoughts of returning to school not far off, I thought a good, solid classic might be the perfect reading choice for cooler weather. Please cast your vote, and the winner will be announced Sunday July 15. We'll reconvene here and at the forum on October 31 for discussion.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
"Winesburg, Ohio is Sherwood Anderson's masterpiece, a cycle of short stories concerning life in a small town at the end of the nineteenth century. At the center is George Willard, a young reporter who becomes the confidant of the town's solitary figures. Anderson's stories influenced countless American writers including Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Oates and Carver. "

The Small Room by May Sarton
"Anxiously embarking on her first teaching job, Lucy Winter arrives at a New England women's college and shortly finds herself in the thick of a crisis: she had discovered a dishonest act committed by a brilliant student who is a protégée of a powerful faculty member. How the central characters—students and teachers—react to the crisis and what effect the scandal has on their personal and professional lives are the central motifs of May Sarton's sensitive, probing novel."

The Awkward Age by Henry James
"The Awkward Age, written at a time when female emancipation and the double standard were subjects of fierce debate, is the most remarkable example of James's dramatic method. The novel traces the experiences of 18-year-old Nanda Brookenham, exposed to corruption in the salon of her youthful, 'modern' mother, who, in maintaining a circle where talk is shockingly sophisticated, 'must sacrifice either her daughter or...her intellectual habits'. Does Nanda reach maturity and self-knowledge in the lively company of handsome, genial Vanderbank, whom she loves, and of ugly, intelligent, parvenu Mitchy, who loves her? Or is she a symbol of sterile idealism, as she clings to old Mr Longdon, with his memories of Nanda's grandmother, and of an aristocracy once untouched by money-troubles and dubious French novels?"

The Vagabond by Colette
"Thirty-three years-old and recently divorced, Renée Néré has begun a new life on her own, supporting herself as a music-hall artist. Maxime, a rich and idle bachelor, intrudes on her independent existence and offers his love and the comforts of marriage. A provincial tour puts distance between them and enables Renée, in a moving series of leters and meditations, to resolve alone the struggle between her need to be loved and her need to have a life and work of her own."

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
"Considered by many to be John Dos Passos's greatest work, Manhattan Transfer is an 'expressionistic picture of New York' (New York Times) in the 1920s that reveals the lives of wealthy power brokers and struggling immigrants alike. From Fourteenth Street to the Bowery, Delmonico's to the underbelly of the city waterfront, Dos Passos chronicles the lives of characters struggling to become a part of modernity before they are destroyed by it. More than seventy-five years after its first publication, Manhattan Transfer still stands as "a novel of the very first importance" (Sinclair Lewis). It is a masterpeice of modern fiction and a lasting tribute to the dual-edged nature of the American dream."

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
"Sasha Jensen has returned to Paris, the city of both her happiest moments and her most desperate. Her past lies in wait for her in cafes, bars, and dress shops, blurring all distinctions between nightmare and reality. When she is picked up by a young man, she begins to feel that she is still capable of desires and emotions. Few encounters in fiction have been so brilliantly conceived, and few have come to a more unforgettable end."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

All Talk, Mostly

I'm a little late on posting about Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant for the Slaves of Golconda discussion. Friday was Bookman's birthday and Saturday I usually don't blog and there was school and more celebrating with Bookman. So you see, I have a good excuse. Now to the book.

The reader is suddenly dropped in on the Lamb family arguing over a smoking fire. Very quickly we learn that Horace, the head of the family is a tightwad who allows only the smallest of fires, the cheapest of food, and keeps his five children in rags. The house belongs to the Lamb family but they have no money, the money belongs to Charlotte, Horace's wife. Also living in the house is Mortimer, a penniless cousin of Horace's who grew up in the house, and Emilia, Horace's aunt, also without income. Charlotte gave control of her money to Horace when they married and Horace rather prides himself on not touching the principal and managing to live frugally off the interest as well as having some to reinvest. Everyone, however, is miserable and Charlotte has had enough. She and Mortimer are planning to run away together.

Also in the house are the servants. Bullivant is the head house servant and Mrs. Seldon is the head cook. Each has an assistant George and Miriam respectively. George was born in the workhouse and Bullivant is trying mightily in a domineering sort of way to shape the boy up and turn him into a younger version of himself. However, George will have none of it. Miriam came from the orphanage and Mrs. Seldon is trying to shape her up into a younger version of herself as well. Mrs. Seldon uses a sharp tongue and the fear of God and has somewhat better success than Bullivant but only because Miriam is generally more compliant and without ambition. And of course, as is the usual in houses with servants, the servants know everything that is going on in the family even when all the family members don't know.

The book feels at once old and modern. Published in 1947, the story has an end of the Victorian era sensibility to it. It is clear from the gulf between Bullivant and George that times are changing. George has ambitions to get ahead. He frustrates Bullivant endlessly for refusing to accept his place in the servant class. Unfortunately for George, his ambition doesn't quite match his intelligence. Or perhaps it is a lack of skill and resources that hold him back and direct his energies into troublesome paths.

At the same time that it feels old fashioned, it feels modern. Not the story itself but the way that it is written. The book is almost entirely dialog. There is hardly anything in the way of expository narrative except the barest of directions to indicate who is speaking and where the speaker is located. There are no transitions between scenes; at one moment we are in the drawing room at the Lamb's and the next we are in the kitchen or at the grocery store of Mrs. Buchanan. It is sometimes rather disorienting. However, in a way, it puts the reader in the story, as if we are a silent servant overhearing all the various conversations. As a character in the story we do not have benefit of a narrative except the one we create for ourselves, just like in life. Life is all dialog and we create the narrative for ourselves, the stories to make sense of it all.

This style makes for difficult reading, not only is it hard to follow as I mentioned, but the reader remains on the outside, we are not able to get inside any of the character's heads. Compton-Burnett makes up a bit for this by having the characters say things and have conversations that bothered me at first. No one talks like that! Unfortunately I can't seem to find a passage to illustrate what I mean without making it long and providing quite a lot of explanation.

I suppose Manservant and Maidservant can be called a drawing room drama as well as a comedy of manners. There is no real plot, yet quite a lot happens. One of the characters sums it up nicely:
I suppose a good deal happens in daily life," said Charlotte. "We only have to look at what is near to us, to find the drama of existence. It seems such a pity that that is so."

And just as we began the book in the midst of a conversation about a smoking fire, we end the book in the midst of a conversation of a smoking fire. As far as everything in between, some things get resolved and some things do not. Just as there are no neat and tidy beginnings in life there are no neat and tidy endings either. The past is always with us and continually cycles around and intrudes upon the present and the future.

Cross posted at So Many Books